The Revolutionary Paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat: A Video Essay

“The idea of the unrec­og­nized genius slav­ing away in a gar­ret is a deli­cious­ly fool­ish one,” says artist and crit­ic Rene Ricard, as por­trayed by Michael Win­cott, in Julian Schn­abel’s Basquiat. “We must cred­it the life of Vin­cent Van Gogh for real­ly send­ing this myth into orbit.” And “no one wants to be part of a gen­er­a­tion that ignores anoth­er Van Gogh. In this town, one is at the mer­cy of the recog­ni­tion fac­tor.” The town to which he refers is, of course, New York, in which the tit­u­lar Jean-Michel Basquiat lived the entire­ty of his short life — and cre­at­ed the body of work that has con­tin­ued not just to appre­ci­ate enor­mous­ly in val­ue, but to com­mand the atten­tion of all who so much as glimpse it.

As a film Basquiat has much to rec­om­mend it, not least David Bowie’s appear­ance as Andy Warhol. But as one would expect from a biopic about an artist direct­ed by one of his con­tem­po­raries, it takes a sub­jec­tive view of Basquiat’s life and career. “The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Paint­ings of Jean-Michel Basquiat,” the video essay by Youtube Blind Dweller above, adheres more close­ly to the his­tor­i­cal record, telling the sto­ry of how his wild imag­i­na­tion spurred him on to become the hottest phe­nom­e­non on the New York art scene of the nine­teen-eight­ies. By the mid­dle of that decade, the young Brook­lynite who’d once lived on the street after drop­ping out of school found him­self mak­ing over a mil­lion dol­lars per year with his art.

At that time Basquiat “had col­lec­tors knock­ing on his door near­ly every day demand­ing art from him, yet simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ask­ing for spe­cif­ic col­ors or imagery to match their fur­ni­ture,” which result­ed in “him slam­ming the door in a lot of col­lec­tors’ faces.” He refused to pro­duce art to order, con­sumed as he was with his own inter­ests — the law, saint­hood, African cul­ture, black Amer­i­can his­to­ry, the built envi­ron­ment of New York City — and their incor­po­ra­tion into his work. He also pos­sessed a keen sense of how to main­tain a tan­ta­liz­ing dis­tance between him­self and his pub­lic, for instance by delib­er­ate­ly cross­ing out text in his paint­ings on the the­o­ry that “when a word is more obscured, the more like­ly an observ­er will be drawn to it.”

This would have been evi­dent to Warhol, him­self no incom­pe­tent when it came to audi­ence man­age­ment. His asso­ci­a­tion with Basquiat secured both of their places in the zeit­geist of eight­ies Amer­i­ca, but his death in 1987 marked, for his young pro­tégé, the begin­ning of the end. “He began dis­so­ci­at­ing him­self from his down­town past, attend­ing more par­ties reserved for the super-rich, and becom­ing increas­ing­ly obsessed with the idea of being accept­ed by cer­tain crowds,” says Blind Dweller, and his final hero­in over­dose occurred the very next year. Basquiat is remem­bered as both ben­e­fi­cia­ry and vic­tim of the phe­nom­e­non to which we refer (now almost always pos­i­tive­ly) as hype — count­less cycles of which have since done noth­ing to dimin­ish the vital­i­ty exud­ed by his most strik­ing paint­ings.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes Basquiat’s Unti­tled Great Art: One Paint­ing Says Every­thing Basquiat Want­ed to Say About Amer­i­ca, Art & Being Black in Both Worlds

Take a Close Look at Basquiat’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Art in a New 500-Page, 14-Pound, Large For­mat Book by Taschen

The Sto­ry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graph­ic Nov­el

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Chaot­ic Bril­liance of Jean-Michel Basquiat: From Home­less Graf­fi­ti Artist to Inter­na­tion­al­ly Renowned Painter

The Odd Cou­ple: Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, 1986

When Glenn O’Brien’s TV Par­ty Brought Klaus Nomi, Blondie & Basquiat to Pub­lic Access TV (1978–82)

When David Bowie Played Andy Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s Film, Basquiat

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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